Nashville's Adia Victoria plays songs from 'A Southern Gothic'

Adia Victoria plays songs from 'A Southern Gothic' (MPR)

Adia Victoria joins us for a virtual session to play songs from her upcoming record, A Southern Gothic. Victoria catches up with Jill Riley about her journey to Nashville, putting together the new record, and the community she built over quarantine.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

JILL RILEY: Hey, I'm Jill Riley from The Current Morning Show. It's time for another virtual session from The Current. Our guest today is Adia Victoria, and that's the first single that we've been playing from her new record called Magnolia Blues. We're going to get some more music, we're going to have a conversation. But right now I would like to welcome my guest for this virtual session, Nashville singer songwriter, Adia Victoria. How are you? Welcome to the virtual interview style of The Current.

ADIA VICTORIA: Howdy howdy, I'm well. How are you doing?

Not bad. It's it's good to have a conversation. You know, just two years ago, you played in Minneapolis, playing The Current and Walker Art Center's Rock The Garden. We haven't had a Rock The Garden since then because of this global pandemic. So, you know, time is passing in a very strange way. I can't believe that was already two years ago. But Adia, you've got a new record coming out September 17. And I want to talk about the new record but just recently, you were in Minnesota. You were in Duluth, Minnesota for that Water Is Life: Stop Line 3 festival. So I wonder, I saw your name as part of the lineup--how did you get involved with that festival, and what did it mean to you to play that event?

So one of the organizers of the festival, David Huckfelt, he reached out to me while I was up in Rhode Island, at Newport. He mentioned that he was familiar with my work and was a fan and he had this festival that he was putting together about Stop Line 3, and I was automatically interested and he told me about a lot of acts that were going to be performing and a lot of the people that were organizing behind it. And I said, "Yes, please, I would love to." It was kind of last minute. I think it was like two weeks before the actual fest. It was my first out of town gig since COVID. And so I went up, and I asked if I could actually bring my mother who's an activist here in Nashville, Jackie Paul Sims, to speak before I performed, because she has contacts in that community, and in the indigenous communities social organizing up there. And he said, "Absolutely." So my mom went on tour with me. It was beautiful. It was just absolutely surreal.

Yeah. It's really cool that your mom was able to travel with you--I didn't know that about your mother. So thank you for sharing that with us. Have you spent a lot of time with with your mom during the pandemic?

We have been quarantining together, so yes. We managed not to chew each other's faces off, but it's actually been a lovely time. Me and my mom, we kick it really good. We know each other well enough, you know, we know how to get into a groove with one another. And we know how to perfectly get under one another's skin, but it's all with love. I've actually been extremely blessed to have this year and a half with my mom. To go from being on tour over 200 days a year in 2019 to just being super at home. It's been really great. It's been really nice. We have all of our cats. We're happy.

When you say all of our cats, how many are we talking here?

I'm so embarrassed. I almost don't want to say.

Don't be, because I'm a cat lady so I understand.

Girl, I'm about to take this to a whole 'nother level. Okay, so we started out quarantine with our four cats. Then our cat Shelby got pregnant and had five kittens, and I've only managed to give one away to my cousin. So we currently have eight cats? Oh my god. But they have outside units and I'm building them a little cat village outside so it's not--okay, it's weird. I can't clean this up.

That's ok. We got a few cat ladies on the staff, so we're right behind you. You mentioned the Newport festival--I was kind of creeping on your social media and checking out some of your pictures. I saw this great picture of you, Margo Price, and Lucy Dacus and I thought, "That is so cool," because I think there's something going on. And maybe it's kind of the change in Nashville, or the change in the scene where I just feel like there's this great support of female singer songwriters just lifting each other up. Has that been your experience?

Yeah, you know, I feel like a lot of my girls down here in Nashville--I feel like we've been told to wait so long, or there's a correct way of doing this. Like you can't piss off the old boys club. You don't want to offend anybody. It's a very Southern traditional thing where you want to--you know, as a woman, you have to kind of remain as unscary as possible, as approachable as possible. I think especially with COVID a lot of us were just like, you know what, screw this system. Y'all can't even take care of us, why should we play by your rules? Why should we wait for you? Also why should we trust you with our art, because y'all have bad taste. Y'all putting out Morgan Wallen and Florida Georgia Line whatever it's like and this is the power of Nashville? It's like, no. I think for a lot of us like Allison Russell, Brandi Carlile, Margo Price, Shona, Yola, a lot of us are realizing our power and I think that session that we had in Newport that Allison Russell so masterfully organized was called Once And Future Sounds, the guest was Chaka Khan. It was like, "Look what happens when you let more than one of us at the table at a time."

The new record, A Southern Gothic is due out right around the corner, September 17. I wonder if you could just--let's talk more about the record in the second half here because I really want to dig into it. But before we do, I'm interested in finding out your path from South Carolina to Nashville because you've been in Nashville for a while. So can you kind of tell me how you made your way there?

On a Greyhound. [laughs]

Did you just kind of like pack up what you had and hit the road--did you have a plan?

No, never. I still don't. So it wasn't a straight line. You know life tends never to be that way. I actually went from growing up in South Carolina, I moved to Brooklyn when I was 19. Came back down south three years later, and then I moved to Atlanta when the recession hit 'cause South Carolina just got destroyed by the recession in 2007/2008. Moved to Atlanta, put in some time there. Started learning guitar, listening to Gillian Welch getting into like older folk music, blues music. At this point, my entire family lives in Nashville, except for my little sister, she was in Charleston. So she and I came to Nashville together in the winter of 2010. I had a cat, I had a guitar, and not much else. And I just arrived, I enrolled in college, got my GED, and I started performing out and I guess people dug what they heard. Cut my first record with Roger Moutenot, and got signed to Atlantic and now here I am.

Yeah, you've been in Nashville for over a decade now? I mean, you've probably watched that city change quite a bit.

Oh, yeah, absolutely. So me and my sister Hanifa--we arrived in Nashville in November 2010. And our home--we live right where Midtown meets North Nashville. So it's a very historic black neighborhood and we have literally watched the skyline change because we can see downtown from my Momma's house and we just watch it change. We've watched new people come in, gentrify whole blocks in our neighborhood. It's been like this slow creep and it's actually honestly quite terrifying.

Yeah, I remember visiting Nashville, like the end of the aughts and downtown felt like a city, but it kind of felt like almost a small town city. Almost like the way that St. Paul feels to me here in Minnesota. And then the last time I was there a few years ago, I'm like, wow, this this is changing and it's changing at a rate where I don't know that I see a lot of the old city but I think you can still feel that music buzz in the air. I don't know what your experience has been, if you kind of feel a little taste to the old Nashville, but with the music industry, the way that the industry in Nashville is working, again, seems to be changing with a lot of artists like yourself.

Yeah, when I first moved to Nashville, my generation of artists that I first stumbled upon when I came into the scene, it was Bully it was Those Darlins it was Promised Land Sound, it was Denney and the Jets. It was a lot of this garage punk kind of alternative scene and this was still the days where kids could rent a house together in East Nashville right off of Gallatin, like you could afford to live and like create art and basically be like a crusty a** punk kid and be a musician and I love that. Jessi Zazu Darlin was my best friend and she's the one that convinced me like, "You have talent. You are good enough to be on stage." And I miss that sense of community. I miss that that group of kids, they're all now grown and have kids of their own and married and a lot have moved out of the city because they've been priced out. But I see what's taken its place so much of it now is just about streams and having a good TikTok song or like, the city's just become basically an extension of social media. When I was coming up, there was no Instagram. Twitter really wasn't a big thing. Streaming was a huge yet and I don't know, I feel like a lot of the soul has just been removed from it. But I do find that spirit that I loved listening to Hank Williams records with friends and drinking wine and writing songs. I've now got to the point, you know, I'm 35--I'm not 23 anymore, where I'm more intentional about creating the community that I want. I don't wait for a scene to start. I create my own scene. I call up my girlfriends. I'm like, "Look, let's do this." I met Fiona Prime the other day on an elevator, going to Trey Burt's record release show, and I pretty much was just like, "Hey, are you in town? Do you like to eat food and music? We should do this." And I basically was just like, "Let's hang out." And she's like, "Yeah, let's get the girls together." So that's what that's where I'm moving to now. Like, I'm no longer in the club. I'm with my friends in their house. But we're trying to protect that spirit of Nashville.

Let's get another one of your performance videos in here, and then let's dig into this new album. So last year, you put out a song called "South Gotta Change" and I wonder if you could help me just kind of set up this song and talk about the inspiration for it and what you were feeling at the time that you wrote it.

Yeah. You know, last year it was a lot. A lot of everything at once and a lot of people in the industry, a lot of my peers were feeling pressure from their people to be online, and stream, and live shows, and release content, like keep feeding the baby and keeping people interested. And I kind of took the opposite approach. I did not like the experience of doing live streams, I did not like the experience of how connected I was to my phone, how reliant I was on my phone for connection with people. So I kind of withdrew from that. I would hope that anyone who follows me found time to have a sacred pause for themselves. But last summer, this was right around the period when representative John Lewis left us, and it was also immediately following the lynching of George Floyd. I was sitting outside on my back porch, and it was so hot, like in June, I was burning up. It's that heat in the south where it's not just hot, it's humid, so it sticks to you. It's claustrophobic and it frustrates you, and I remember feeling very frustrated. I remember thinking about the south, like, what would you say to someone that you loved that was running from themselves, that was so terrified of their past, terrified of the things that they did. They smothered it and covered it in lies. They projected they blamed. They're just haunted by their past. What would you say to someone that you loved and you saw them? And that's kind of my experience with the south, like, I love it here. I'm a Carolina girl. I'll die here. I'll die for this place. And I don't let nobody talk mean about it either. But I'm just like, ain't you tired? Aren't you tired of running, aren't you tired of pretending? Like, look, I think that the South is the most beautiful most American most profound place in our country. We are blessed with so much, we're blessed with each other. We're blessed with this amazing culture. If only white folk would let us be blessed, like get out of the way of your blessing, y'all. And so I wrote that song kind of as a prayer. And I was inspired by John Lewis when he told young people to get into good trouble. I wondered what that meant. And I thought about the power of telling stories, the power of bearing witness and sharing narratives of people that have been oppressed in silence. What could be more radical, what could be more troubling to a system that seeks to divide than sharing stories and coming together? And that was the birth of "South Gotta Change". Just let me share my story. Let me speak to this mountain. Let me call it out and tell you that I love you. And I'm not leaving so for everyone that says, "If you don't love it, leave." No, that's not love that's walking away. That's cowardice, and shame on you. My family's been here for 400 years I'm not leaving. You leave.

Well, let's check out the performance video here of "South Gotta Change," Adia Victoria here on The Current.

[music: "South Gotta Change" by Adia Victoria]

Virtual session with Nashville singer songwriter, Adia Victoria. And that's a song that she put out last year, almost to the date one year ago called "South Gotta Change". Well, she is here to talk about the new record. So we should dig into that. It's called A Southern Gothic, it's due out September 17. Adia, I wonder if you could just kind of take me back to the beginning of making the record. When did you start songwriting? When did you get into the studio? When did you get hooked up with T Bone Burnett? Tell me how this record came together.

Oh, you want the tea?

Spill the tea.

So the initial writing process for A Southern Gothic began in November 2019. I just finished a European tour opening for Calexico and Iron and Wine, which would be our final tour before COVID. The final show was in Paris, which is very special place to me. I met up with a few friends. I had a few collaborators over there. Stone Jack Jones, who's a fellow Southern folk artist--I highly recommend his music, and instrumentalist and producer, Marcello Giuliani, and we were sitting in Marcello's living room in his studio, and Jack was like, "I have this hook for this song, but I have nothing else." And he sang to me the hook from the track, "My Oh My" and we all just started fiddling around with music and I had a book of Eudora Welty short stories, one of my favorite writers from the south, and while the guys were playing the music on a loop I was just reading and taking these interesting lines and writing a story around them, and I came up with a story of this young girl who is watching this girl who's watched her die or or pass or leave, and, but the markers have her presence. She sees it all around her in the south, and the clouds, and the kudzu, and in the coal mines. And I thought about the ways that we see ourselves in the south, and the ways that you may see yourself and perceive your experiences may be different from the way that other people perceive you. So I went home with this one song and I was like, "I think we have something," I told Mason Hickman, my creative and life partner. I was like, "I think this might be the beginning of a record." Fast forward to January 2020, I went back to Paris to work more with Stone Jack Jones and Marcelo, I ended up writing about a fourth of the record there. I was there for a month and a half, came back home at the very end of February just before the whole world shut down. But Paris has always been a city for me that pulls art out of me. I don't know if it's because when I'm over there, I'm listening more intently. I'm using my brain differently. I speak French pretty much fluently but I'm not a native speaker so I have to listen more. I have to be a lot more present and aware of my surroundings and I'm observing a lot deeper there than I'm doing back home in Nashville. So you combine that with the way that the city lends itself to solitude and walking. For me, this is like the perfect storm for creating and I came back home right before COVID with a suitcase full of songs.

The world is shutting down, global pandemic, you've got a pile of songs for a new record. So what do you do with that time? Do you take that time to further develop the record? We talked a little bit before about, you know, you were able to spend so much more time with your family, with your mother. Was the lockdown almost like a blessing in disguise for you to just take that time to be creative?

Well, I'll tell you what you do. You write for your life, you write out of an extremely animal part of you. And I wasn't home the entire time. Just like arting, while I was in Paris, I applied for a job at an Amazon warehouse because I figured 2020 we weren't gonna be touring much. I ain't got money like that. So I was like, let me just get a little cute job while I work on this record. As soon as I started at Amazon, I started like March 3rd of 2020. You know, the pandemic happens and we are no longer just employees. We're frontline hero workers. I was like, "What the hell?" But it's funny because right before the pandemic, before I gone to Paris, I met T Bone Burnett's acquaintance. And I think we just saw in one another this kindred spirit. We both showed up to the meeting, our initial meeting out of Starbucks, totally, like Southern goth dressed out, he looked like a preacher with a long black coat, white shirt, black tie, and I was wearing pretty much the girl version of that with a skirt, a little bit of lace, but we just looked like abolitionists. He'd reached out to me because he was starting a project for Audible, and he was looking for poetry. And so I was like, I would love to contribute poetry. And then as we started talking more and more about our lives growing up in the south, the ways that we love the South, struggle with it. It just developed into a very organic friendship and over the course of quarantine, I got to know he and his wife Kelly quite well. They would have me and my mom over to swim and just talk and I mentioned my mom, Jackie Paul Sims is an activist, and that's a world that he's looking to get more into. So we formed a little community, you know, the four of us. When I wrote "South Gotta Change" I sent it to him, and he was like, "I'd love to mix this for you. I would love to help you get this out into the world." Obviously, the label loved it. And we had just such a great working relationship. He trusted me with my vision. He was like, "No one can tell your story about growing up in the south." He's like, "I would never dream of putting my hand over your hand while you try to write." So we had this very interesting working relationship where he was kind of interested to see where I was going to go with the art. He ended up mixing the record, he and his brilliant sound engineer Rachel Moore. After we got vaxxed we finally all got in the studio together. But no, this was a very raw, down to brass tacks way of creating for me alone in my room, four walls. I have my magnolia tree outside, I had a whole bunch of books, and nothing else. So it's like, "Girl, what can you make from this?"

I'm talking with Adia Victoria about the new record A Southern Gothic talking about meeting and working with T Bone Burnett, the record is out September 17. You described kind of a visual of what Southern Gothic is. So I can picture the fashion, I can picture the time period almost, you know, but what does that mean to you as a sound?

Southern Gothic, for me, I was heavenly inspired--heavenly. Well, maybe I was heavenly inspired. I was highly inspired, heavily inspired by the recordings that Alan Lomax did in the 1930s of chain gang workers, working to clear field, clear rock in the deep south. And I remember sitting with those records and thinking these most most oftentimes, these were men in prison, black men who had nothing to create with. Essentially they had experienced social death. They'd been sentenced to work oftentimes unto death. So they were out in these fields, they had the ground, they had the rock to break they had the pickaxe with which to break the rock. They had the chain, and they had each other, and through that they created music that changed the landscape of American music. So much came from this. Blues came from this, gospel came from this, jazz came from this, rock and roll came from this, Americana, roots--it endured. And I looked at what they had to create with. They were in this sort of spiritual communion with their surroundings, with the South, with the dirt, with each other. And they had to be because that's all they had. So when I went and I started really going hard in the writing sessions, recording sessions for this record, I didn't have my whole band. I didn't have a fancy studio for a week that I could work in. I was getting down to "let me put some rice in a shaker, and put some beans," you know, let me see what I can make with my rudimentary percussion skills. Mason learned how to play the banjo, the mandolin, I learned how to play some of the keys. It was two kids from South Carolina desperately reaching around them, what can we make? How can we make a record with these limited resources? And the record I think, A Southern Gothic, if it don't sound like the land, if I can't hear the land, and your roots music--it ain't roots music to me. I'm sorry, I'm very protective over southern culture, blues culture, Southern folk life, like this is my church. This is what's holy to me. And if I can't hear the land in your music, you know, you need to go back to the drawing board. You need to go put your hands in some dirt.

Adia Victoria, A Southern Gothic is the new record. It's out September 17. You've got a pretty special show coming up at the Ryman Auditorium. Jason Isbell is doing another one of his residencies, and you're playing one of the nights. The last time I was in Nashville was a few years ago when he did one of those residency runs. And it was such a special thing. We had a chance to go to the final show in that run and and I'll just never forget the look on his face when he finished that run of shows. And he picked up Amanda Shires over his shoulder and they walked off the stage. It was just this great moment of accomplishment, and I'm so glad to see him back. What I noticed about that run of shows, and this one, you know, he is the kind of guy that he'll step out of the way and make space and lift up women in Nashville and in the music industry. So you gotta be really excited for that show coming up.

Jason is someone else who's kind of become one of my industry Big Brothers. We've only met a handful of times. Geez, I think we've only properly met at Newport. No, I also was involved in his Georgia Blue project where he had a whole bunch of Southern artists come and cover songs from Georgia artists to celebrate Georgia flipping both its Senate seats and he asked me to cover Precious Bryant's "The Truth," and that was the first time that I had met him and his band here in Nashville at Sound Emporium. He was another one where we just like--another Southern eccentric. We met and we were just like, "Hey, you're my people. You're not one of these Los Angeles/Nashville, people. You from the cut." You know, he's from Alabama. I'm from South Carolina. I was like, "Okay, yeah, we can definitely kick it." And so from that I wanted to cover a blues song on my record, Curly Weaver "You Was Born To Die" from 1933. And I was like, "Yo, Jason, do you want to put some guitar down on this?" And he was like, "For sure." But I feel like that's what happened in the pandemic. It's like, everybody was home. No one was out in the road. No one was out trying to like hustle and serve their ego. Everybody was at home and I finally felt bold enough to just reach out to people and be like, "Hey, let's collaborate." And he returned the favor by asking me if I wanted to close out his residency that he's doing in Nashville, aside from the opening night which Amanda Shires, his wife, she's opening the show. It's all black women. It's Alison Russell. It's Mickey Guyton. And it's myself, and I'm just so excited. I'm already forgetting people, but it's just gonna be a celebration. And he was like, I need to spotlight y'all. So much of our music comes from black women. And it's high time that you know, Nashville recognizes y'all, celebrates y'all, and doesn't wait till you die to give you your flowers. So Mr. Isbell said, "I'm gonna give these women, these queens their flowers while they're still here."

Yeah, that sounds like it's gonna be a great run of shows. Ryman Auditorium. The great part of that is, you know, that's that old spirit that we were talking about earlier. You know, things change, but boy, walking into that place is like...I can feel the hair stand up on the back of my neck. There's just, there's this great just ghost of old Nashville, but with the combination of new Nashville and putting the spotlight on the artists who, let's get to know them now instead of 20 years from now and be like, "Hey, remember this way back then," you know, a great time to focus on what's going on in the now. So that's great. It's October 24th. Have you played the Ryman before?

I've not, I've not played the Ryman. This is my Ryman debut.

Wow. Congratulations, that's awesome. Just a really special place to play. Well, Adia Victoria, thank you so much for this talk, for this conversation and telling us about your new music and your path to where you've been and where you've come, and here you are. She went to Nashville with one cat, now she's got eight. Now she's got a new record.

That's called manifesting, that's called abundance. Manifesting one cat a day. Like Jesus split the loaves, but different.

Well the record is called A Southern Gothic, it's out September 17. One more song, one more video that you put together for us. And this one is called "Mean-Hearted Woman". And as we go out Adia, thank you to engineer by the way, Peter Eklund, and session producer Jesse Wiza, but with this song "Mean-Hearted Woman" before you leave us if you could give us a little background on this song.

This is one of the bops that I wrote while I was in Paris, and I wrote this song for all the women from--you know, you listen to these old blues tunes, Robert Johnson, Skip James, and they're always telling you that the devil gotten the woman. The woman is mad, woman's crazy, woman's evil, but I'm like, who made her this way? So I wanted to offer the perspective of the so-called mad woman. Who made her mad, who made her mean-hearted and the song begins with her being dumped on Christmas Day, replaced, and she just goes out into the world and she's ready to watch it burn,

It's almost like it wasn't God who made honkytonk angels.

Right? That's right.

Well, Adia Victoria, take care and thank you so much for joining The Current.

Thanks for having me.

Songs Played

00:01 Magnolia Blues
17:58 South Gotta Change
37:23 Mean-Hearted Woman

External Link

Adia Victoria - official website


Host - Jill Riley
Guest - Adia Victoria
Producers - Jesse Wiza, Christy Taylor
Technical Director - Peter Ecklund

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